* by Pete Bodo*
[two corrections made to original - ed.]
Every once in a while, you get a specific moment in tennis that seems to dominate the airwaves when it comes to all those blasts and broadcasts at the end of any given year. This year provided a great example: Did any specific moment sum up the year better, and also squeeze its main narrative into a single, nuclear moment, than that cross-court forehand blast Novak Djokovic unloaded when Roger Federer served the first of his two match points in their semifinal clash at the U.S. Open?
As theater goes, it was spectacular. And spectacularly simple. Moments like that are as rare in tennis as they are in theater. Write it into a play and a savvy producer will laugh you out of the conference room for daring to suggest such a cliché.
A moment like that is perceived as a game-changer, or in many cases the flip-side of one—the equally significant if less resonant but sometimes equally compelling moment that upholds the status quo. The moment when the game is saved from change.
Either way, though, the events are rarely "moments" in the strict sense of the word. Most of the time these realized or foiled turning points are entire matches (like Rafael Nadal's first triumph over Federer at Wimbledon), or tournaments (like Andre Agassi's failure to win the 1995 U.S. Open final).
Keeping all that in mind, I asked myself if there was a comparable moment in the WTA game in 2011. Li Na's win at Roland Garros? Nah. We won't know what, if anything, it really means for the future of Asian tennis for some years, or even for Li, who's already 29. It was a glorious moment, but not a game-changer—yet. Petra Kvitova's win at Wimbledon? Nope. The vacuum at the top of the game is obvious. She filled it nicely and now needs to demonstrate that she can continue to occupy it and throttle the three or four other pretenders to the throne.
The closest I could come was one of those flip-side moments that maintained the order of things in the WTA, and for the entire year—one which will go down in history. This game-extending moment occurred at Indian Wells, where Caroline Wozniacki was slated to meet Victoria Azarenka in a quarterfinal match.
Azarenka was just finding the game that would propel her to No. 3 by the end of the year, and coming off a three-set win over Agniezska Radwanska. But a strained hip forced Azarenka to abandon her match with Wozniacki after just three games. Recovering quickly, Azarenka would go on an 11-match winning streak (d. Maria Sharapova for the Miami title and Irina-Camelia Begu for the Marbella title) and never look back, ending the year on a high note.
Having dodged the Vika bullet, Wozniacki won Indian Wells. But she beat only the No. 18 and 17 players respectively in the final two rounds, Sharapova and Marion Bartoli—who would be the highest ranked player Wozniacki defeated in a final in 2011.
I don't want to trash Wozniacki, whose six titles are a great haul, and equal to the take of No. 2 Kvitova. But it's astonishing how few quality players she beat in those six events she won. And it adds further credence to the theory that Wozniacki has just been keeping the seat warm for a more imposing No. 1.
Here are Wozniacki's final-round victims along with their ranking at the time, in order, starting in January: Svetlana Kuznetsova (No. 23, Dubai), Bartoli (No. 17, Indian Wells), Elena Vesnina (No. 56, Charleston), Shuai Peng (No. 31, Brussels), Lucie Safarova (No. 38, Copenhagen), Petra Cetkovska (No. 40, New Haven). The blow is somewhat softened by the fact that Wozniacki won six of the eight finals she played, losing to Vera Zvonareva (in Doha) and Julia Goerges (Stuttgart). Okay, you can only beat the person who makes it to the final. But where was Wozniacki when the big cats were on the prowl?
Now, contrast that with Kvitova's seven-title hit list: Andrea Petkovic (No. 32, Brisbane), Kim Clijsters (No. 2, Paris), Azarenka (No. 5, Madrid), Sharapova (No. 6, Wimbledon), Dominika Cibulkova (No. 23, Linz), Azarenka (No. 4, WTA Championships). She won six of her eight finals, losing only to No. 9 Bartoli at Eastbourne and no. 72 Rybarikova at the Prague II ITF event (which she played only as a favor to the promoters and her countrymen).
Finally, had a healthy Azarenka beaten Wozniacki at Indian Wells (the head-to-head going in was 3-2 for Wozniacki, but Azarenka was on the cusp of her move into the Top 5), Kvitova would almost certainly have finished 2011 as the Wimbledon champ—and new year-end WTA No. 1.
Sure, that assumes many "ifs," but my point is that Azarenka's retirement in Indian Wells may well have been the key to Wozniacki's ability to limp over the finish line as the year's winner. Thus, she earned new status as the only player of either sex to rank No. 1 for two consecutive years—without having won a single Grand Slam event. I have a funny feeling that this non-game changer moment in the WTA has earned Wozniacki a place in tennis history that will never be equaled.